Our parsha, Bamidbar, begins with a reminder of where the Israelites find themselves physically: “...״וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי “And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…” (Bamidbar 1:1). Before God commands Moshe to take a census of men over the age of twenty, “all those in Israel who are able to bear arms,” (Bamidbar 1:3), the text reminds us that for all the laws given to the point and for all the orienting power a census can have, the Jewish people are still wandering.
The Rabbis in Bamidbar Rabbah make meaning of this seemingly unnecessary reminder that the Jewish people are in the desert. After all, don’t we know that already? But the midrash teaches that this phrase comes to tell us something important about the nature of Torah.
"וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי," אֶלָּא כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ כַּמִּדְבָּר, הֶפְקֵר, אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לִקְנוֹת אֶת הַחָכְמָה וְהַתּוֹרָה, לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: "בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי."
"And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness" — Anyone who does not make themselves like the wilderness, ownerless, cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, "the Sinai Wilderness."
(Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7)
It is not that we must be as if we are in the desert, wandering -- rather, we ought to be like the desert itself. The desert is open, not owned by anyone. The wilderness is a space of possibility. To acquire Torah, we must emulate this quality of openness, of unfixedness.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow points out in a dvar Torah that “just as quickly as the Torah evokes this openness, it contains it...It is as if the wilderness of Numbers is like the primordial chaos of Genesis, in need of containment.”
Grushcow elaborates on the nature of this containment:
There is military organization, and there is priestly organization — and quite quickly, we see the perils of organized religion. The counting is exclusive: women, youth, those unable to bear arms, all are not counted….
Perhaps even more challenging, the census is not only exclusive, but it is also hierarchical. Priests and Levites hold different positions than everyone else. Tribes are positioned in the camp based on their status, or that of their ancestors. It is a structure which, as the commentator Luzzatto (Italian, 18th century) writes, is set up “so that everyone would know his place.”
Grushcow goes on to suggest that there are nevertheless strengths of this census; for example, it teaches that “None of us are insignificant, in death or in life.” But this census does not reflect a linear progression from the openness of the desert to a structured community life. The end of Parshat Bamidbar gives us another perspective on openness.
In the very close of the parsha, as part of instructions given to Aharon and his sons about packing up the Mishkan for travel, we learn that non-priests are forbidden from touching the sacred vessels of the Sanctuary:
וְכִלָּה אַהֲרֹן־וּבָנָיו לְכַסֹּת אֶת־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת־כָּל־כְּלֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּנְסֹעַ הַמַּחֲנֶה וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן יָבֹאוּ בְנֵי־קְהָת לָשֵׂאת וְלֹא־יִגְּעוּ אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ אֵלֶּה מַשָּׂא בְנֵי־קְהָת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד׃
When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sacred objects and all the furnishings of the sacred objects at the breaking of camp, only then shall the Kohathites come and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die. These things in the Tent of Meeting shall be the porterage of the Kohathites....
וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת־קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל־עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְאֶל־מַשָּׂאוֹ׃
Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage.
וְלֹא־יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ׃
But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.
(Bamidbar 4:15, 19-20)
Aharon and his sons, the priests, must fully cover the holy objects used in the Mishkan before the Bnei Kehat, a family of Levites, may do their duty of transporting these vessels. Not only may the Levites not touch these items, they also are forbidden from watching the process of taking the Mishkan apart into its components so it can travel alongside the Israelites. If they touch the objects or witness this process, the pesukim tell us, they will die.
What is at stake here? Why is it such a problem for the Levites to simply touch these holy objects — which they themselves are charged with carrying — or to see the deconstruction of the Mishkan?
The Gemara in Yoma 54a uses this pasuk, “But let them not go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die,” in a discussion of a problem. Rav Ketina teaches that ״בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהָיו יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹלִין לָרֶגֶל מְגַלְּלִין לָהֶם אֶת הַפָּרוֹכֶת וּמַרְאִין לָהֶם אֶת הַכְּרוּבִים שֶׁהָיוּ מְעוֹרִים זֶה בָּזֶה וְאוֹמְרִים לָהֶן רָאוּ חִבַּתְכֶם לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם כְּחִבַּת זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה,” “When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, [the priests] would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female.”
But how can this be, asks Rav Hisda! We know from Parshat Bamidbar that it was forbidden for even the Leviim to see the vessels as they were being packed up for transport - how could the priests simply show the cherubs on top of the Ark to the masses!?
Rav Nachman answers with an analogy:
אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן מָשָׁל לְכַלָּה כׇּל זְמַן שֶׁהִיא בְּבֵית אָבִיהָ צְנוּעָה מִבַּעְלָהּ כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּאתָה לְבֵית חָמִיהָ אֵינָהּ צְנוּעָה מִבַּעְלָהּ.
Rav Naḥman said in answer: This is analogous to a bride; as long as she is engaged but still in her father’s house, she is modest in the presence of her husband. However, once she is married and comes to her father-in-law’s house to live with her husband, she is no longer modest in the presence of her husband.
The holy vessels of the Mishkan are compared to a bride. When she is engaged, before her wedding, she remains dressed in front of her husband, but after she is married and goes to live with him, she can undress. So too, the sacred vessels must be dressed in front of the Jewish people — to whom, in this analogy, they are married, or perhaps they represent God, to whom the Jewish people are married — while they are in the desert. Once they are “home” in the Temple, they can be — literally! — undressed.
This narrative makes the packing up of the Mishkan a liminal moment, a time of openness. There is nudity at stake, and privacy. If the Kohanim and Leviim are not careful, the vessels will be exposed in a way they do not want to be, that is not right for the context.
This is a different way of being open and exposed than that which we encountered through the mention of the midbar at the beginning of the parsha. The openness of the desert, of the wilderness, as expressed by the midrash, is one that a person can choose and cultivate. The openness and exposure implied about the sacred keilim is one where they could be exposed though they are not supposed to be and it is unexpected. Both are moments of vulnerability, but these are very different types of exposure.
The two versions of vulnerability that sandwich the communal unification process that is the census are deeply dissimilar. They provide two models of vulnerability that can be encouraged in community. The first, that of the midbar, is a vulnerability that opens a person to learning, from text and from others. It is openness to change, willingness to not be “owned” too firmly. But the vulnerability of packing the Mishkan is one which leads to destruction. It is unwilling exposure, forced vulnerability.
There are many ways for communities to cultivate openness and self-revelation. Some involve attention to power, gentleness, and clear boundaries. But others ask people to pour themselves out until they are empty, to reveal parts of themselves without any protections. There is vulnerability that is wild, freeing, and holy, and there is vulnerability that is harmful.
We must be communities where we can look to one another for support as we share the things that are dear and delicate for us without being asked to offer our souls indiscriminately. We must strive to build communities in which we can all become like the midbar: growing, traveling, open to the world, and yet protected by Divine and human love.